The contribution of the parietal cortex to episodic memory is a fascinating scientific puzzle: although parietal lesions do not normally yield severe episodic-memory deficits, parietal activations are seen frequently in functional-neuroimaging studies of episodic-memory retrieval.
Although parietal lesions do not impair standard cued recall and recognition tests, recent studies have demonstrated that when patients with parietal lesions try to remember complex events, the events' contextual details do not spring to mind automatically and do not trigger vivid remembering states.
In some functional-neuroimaging studies, parietal activations have been associated with successful retrieval and vivid remembering, whereas in other studies they have been associated with 'old responses' or source-memory tasks, regardless of the accuracy with which the information was recalled. These activations have been attributed to working-memory maintenance of retrieved information, to the accumulation of an oldness signal, and to attention to internal representations, but none of these hypotheses accounts for all of the available evidence.
A meta-analysis of event-related functional MRI studies shows that activations that are associated with familiarity and low-confidence recognition are more frequent in the dorsal parietal cortex (DPC; including the intraparietal sulcus, the superior parietal lobule and the precuneus (roughly, Brodmann area 7)). Recollection and high-confidence activations, on the other hand, are more frequent in the ventral parietal cortex (VPC; including the supramarginal and angular gyri (roughly, Brodmann areas 39 and 40).
Extending to the episodic-memory domain a distinction that has been made in the attention literature, we propose that the DPC mediates attention that is guided by retrieval goals (top-down attention), whereas the VPC mediates attention that is captured by relevant memory cues and/or recovered memories (bottom-up attention). This attention to memory (AtoM) model provides a good account for functional-neuroimaging data and suggests that parietal lesions do not impair memory recovery, but rather the capacity of attending to recovered memories (memory neglect). This idea provides a potential solution to the aforementioned scientific puzzle.
The contribution of the parietal cortex to episodic memory is a fascinating scientific puzzle. On the one hand, parietal lesions do not normally yield severe episodic-memory deficits; on the other hand, parietal activations are seen frequently in functional-neuroimaging studies of episodic memory. A review of these two categories of evidence suggests that the answer to the puzzle requires us to distinguish between the contributions of dorsal and ventral parietal regions and between the influence of top-down and bottom-up attention on memory.
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This work was supported by US National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants AG1971 and AG2770 to R.C., National Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada grant A8347 and Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant MGP 6694 to M.M., NIH grant MH071615 to I.O., and an EU Marie Curie individual fellowship to EC. We thank J. Kragel for help with image construction, and P. Davidson and B. Levine for helpful discussions.
Supplementary information S1 (Table)
Activation peaks for retrieval success effects (PDF 183 kb)
Supplementary information S2 (Table)
Correlation between memory accuracy (d') and dorsal-ventral distribution of left parietal activations during episodic retrieval (PDF 167 kb)
Supplementary information S3 (Table)
Activation peaks for Bottom-up AtoM effects (PDF 188 kb)
Supplementary information S4 (Table)
Activation peaks for Top-down AtoM effects (PDF 172 kb)
- Episodic memory
Memory for personally experienced past events.
- Medial temporal lobe
(MTL). A brain area that contains several structures that are critical for declarative-memory function, such as the hippocampus and the parahippocampal gyrus.
- Event-related fMRI
A type of fMRI study in which neural activity during specific trial types is extracted and averaged to allow researchers to contrast trials associated with different behavioural responses, such as successful versus unsuccessful retrieval trials.
- Hemispatial neglect
A lesion-induced neurological disorder that is characterized by impaired awareness of the contralesional side of the external world, one's own body and even internal representations.
- Balint's syndrome
A neurological syndrome, caused by bilateral damage to the posterior parietal and lateral occipital cortices, that has three hallmark symptoms: simultanagnosia, optic ataxia and oculomotor apraxia.
- Retrograde amnesia
The loss of or inability to remember information that was previously stored in long-term memory.
- Anterograde amnesia
The inability to store new information in long-term memory.
- Autobiographical memory
Memory for one's personal past, such as memory for one's birthday party.
- Source memory
Memory for the context in which an item or event was previously encountered.
- Item-recognition memory
Memory that allows us to decide whether an item (such as a word) was previously encountered.
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation
(TMS). A technique in which a strong magnetic field is applied to the scalp to disrupt the function of a cortical area on the other side of the cranium. If ongoing cognitive performance is impaired, the affected cortical area can be assumed to be necessary for the task.
- Mental imagery
The visualization of images 'in the mind's eye' in the absence of a stimulus.
Correctly recognized old items in a recognition-memory test.
- Correct rejections
Correctly recognized new items in a recognition-memory test.
- Signal-detection models of recognition memory
Models that assume that items in a recognition-memory test vary in memory strength (the degree of certainty that the items were previously encountered). Although memory strength is on average greater for old items than for new items, the two distributions overlap. When memory strength exceeds a certain criterion the item is classified as old; otherwise it is classified as new.
- Top-down attention
Attention that is guided by goals.
- Bottom-up attention
This term is usually used to describe attention that is guided by incoming sensory information. According to the AtoM model, attention can be driven by incoming information regardless of whether the information comes from the senses or from memory.
- Visual search paradigm
An attention task that requires participants to find a target (such as the letter F) hidden among distractors (such as many instances of the letter E).
- Memory neglect
A hypothetical syndrome in which sufferers have a deficient ability to spontaneously detect details in retrieved memories (impaired bottom-up attention) but a preserved ability to search and find these details when guided by specific goals (spared top-down attention).
- Memory simultanagnosia
A hypothetical syndrome associated with a difficulty in retrieving multiple details of memory simultaneously.
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Cabeza, R., Ciaramelli, E., Olson, I. et al. The parietal cortex and episodic memory: an attentional account. Nat Rev Neurosci 9, 613–625 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2459
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